In the wee hours of the night after the Browns made their two first-round selections, Ray Farmer, in unprompted fashion, was talking about Travis Benjamin.
A veteran of 11 knee surgeries, the Browns general manager was compelled to come to Benjamin’s defense after he was asked whether he would make a concerted effort to upgrade the team’s corral of return men. Over the next two days, the Browns brought in two players with experience returning punts and kicks -- Duke Johnson and Charles Gaines -- but it’s clear they won’t be the only ones competing for the spots Benjamin has occupied over the past few seasons.
They’ll have to be better than a healthier Benjamin to earn one or both of the valuable roles.
“You’re never the same right away,” Farmer said, referencing the knee surgery that prematurely ended Benjamin’s 2013 season. “Most guys recover better in the second year, and you’ll see a difference. I’m not knocking what Travis did because I do think the guy was productive for us and did a lot of really good things for us. The reality is I think he’ll be even better this year.”
The Browns shuffled through four different punt returners and seven different players returned at least one kick in 2014. Benjamin easily accounted for the most punt returns but averaged just 8.5 yards on the 15 he was able to take. In 2012, he averaged 11.7 yards per return and took one back for a touchdown.
Benjamin returned 12 kicks (a career high) for an average of 20.5 yards last season. As a team, Cleveland ranked 24th in the NFL in punt return average and 25th on kicks.
Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor expects Benjamin to be at the center of the Browns making major improvements in both areas next season.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Travis Benjamin,” Tabor said. “I think he’s a great football player. I’m excited for him to have the opportunity to play like Travis Benjamin in the return game. I’ve got great confidence that he can get that done. Do we still need to work on things? We do, but the good news is he’s a willing participant and he wants to do that. That’s why I’m so fired up about what he can do.”
Asked if he expects Benjamin to be better in the return game, Tabor delivered a simple, profound response.
“I expect him to be great,” Tabor said.
Tabor said he foresees Benjamin “strengthening the punt game” and “being used as a guy in the kickoff return game” along with the likes of Johnson, Gaines and potentially defensive back Justin Gilbert. He’s coming off his busiest season as a wide receiver, too, as he finished with 18 receptions for 314 yards and three touchdowns, all of which either matched or surpassed career highs.
Tabor said the decline in production on returns and incline in production as a wide receiver could go hand in hand.
“A guy begins to play more offensive snaps, gets more touches that way, and maybe the keenness or the sharpness of focusing in on catching the ball and having those opportunities in the return game, they get slighted a little bit,” Tabor said. “I think it’s when things like what happened to us last year in the return game ... I think that opens your eyes a little bit.
“We’ll get it rectified.”